Creating 'Aha!' Language
We can all think of moments when a yoga teacher offered a directive that really resonated and maybe even catalyzed an emotional response or new level of body-mind awareness. What is the inspiration behind their methods? How have these powerful verbal landmarks been crafted?
Genny Kapuler, an Iyengar teacher, sees herself as a messenger of a poetic lineage. “Language threads the mind into the body,” said the seasoned instructor. “It’s a vehicle.”
When I asked her to give a better phrase to the common cue “breathe into the mucus membranes of your nose,” she instantly replied: “What if I say, ‘There’s a lining in the nose that would be like the silk lining of a kimono, and, as you breathe, you can actually feel the fibers open, so the fibers open in a way that would be like flower petals—the petals of the inner nostrils open, and they open all the way wide, into the sinuses of your face.’”
Thinking about it as “the silk lining of a kimono” that can be blown open is one directive you’re likely to remember after you’ve felt it once. (Try it, slowly.)
Kapuler says that her love for language pre-dates her yoga experience and goes back to when she was little. Not surprisingly, Kapuler has always been a voracious reader and has a highly tuned ear, which explains the verbal flexibility that flows from her.
Delivering an "Aha!" moment isn’t easy. New teachers are often guilty of over-teaching,
while some ego-driven instructors talk just to showcase their knowledge. But metaphor enthusiasts, for the most part, seek to establish deeper connections.
Developing this can be done, but it begins with self-awareness. Cass Ghiorse, a yoga teacher and wellness coach, has been slowly backing off from over-cuing since last year. “I’m a lot less wordy now. I think part of it is because I’ve grown and evolved. I’ve learned the power of silence. I’ve become my own editor.”
Ghiorse credits The Breathing Project’s Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews for unveiling concepts that have allowed her to ask more questions rather than firing off layers of instruction.
Ghiorse—who memorizes her students’ names to make them feel “seen” and starts each class by saying “give yourself time to arrive”—admits that syncing thought-provoking offerings with students can sometimes be tricky. “They don’t want questions, they want answers,” she said of the paying public.
Now she gives these in a new way. Ghiorse thinks of sequences like “poetry in your body” and offers poet Mary Oliver-like pauses between asanas to let her inquiries seep-in. “You can’t answer it for your students, you have to let them answer it for themselves, and so there’s a quiet there that I cannot tell you, is so invaluable," she said.
“One holds the poses quite a bit in Iyengar yoga,” agreed Kapuler, “and within that holding, one has time to plummet the depth of their psyche and their being.”
Another trick of these teachers: They are always asking themselves what’s working and what’s not. With an experienced group of students doing sun salutations, Crown Heights studio owner Jyll Hubbard-Salk wonders “Why am I gonna keep talking?!” She’s learned to “just let them get in their vibe,” intuiting when to “fall back and shut up.”
While she does try to make a point not to use profanity, Hubbard-Salk’s students appreciate her nurturing-but-direct style and those four letter words do slip out. “I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I need to stop fucking cussing when I’m teaching.’ And some of my students are like, ‘Girl, that’s why we come—‘cause you’re real!’”
Perhaps a bit eccentric, Hubbard-Salk finds that being uncensored is effective. “When I’m like ‘move your bottoms down,’ nobody moves. But when I say, ‘move your asses down’— they drop!”
Mirroring that sentiment, Ghiorse discussed the process of trusting her authentic self by using relaxed, familiar language. For some, “familiar” might not go all the way to foul language, but Hubbard-Salk, too, walks in her truth unapologetically. “I woke up like this.”
—Illustration by Sharon Watts (To see more of her work, click here.)